When Hugh Freeze took over an Ole Miss program that was coming off a 2-10 season, he had one very clear goal — get to a bowl game by 2014.
While the Rebels might very well get to a bowl game this season, it would be the third in Freeze’s three seasons, the first time that’s happened for Ole Miss since the early 2000s.
“To be very candid, I think the journey that we've been on, I think it's faster than I thought possible,” Freeze said Thursday during SEC media day. “When I first arrived there, I really thought we would be going to hopefully a bowl game in year three. We were able to do that in year one and two, and win both of them.”
With the appearance in a bowl game achieved two times over — and two bowl victories — Freeze said his sights are set on something greater – an SEC West title. And while that might seem far-fetched in a division that includes Alabama and Auburn, two teams that have appeared in the last five BCS National Championship games, he thinks Ole Miss will be a much more formidable SEC opponent this season.
“I said on Day 1 that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West,” Freeze said. “And I think this year we should be that. That's my expectation, is that we should be competitive in every single game.
"There's no question in my mind we're a better football team today than we were in Year 1 and Year 2.”
During Freeze’s first two seasons, the Rebels failed to beat Alabama, but got confidence-building wins against Auburn and LSU. But Ole Miss has had trouble staying consistent. Last season, the Rebels started 3-0 with wins against Vanderbilt and Texas, but then dropped three straight conference games against Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M, which put the Rebels out of the SEC West race.
The Rebels also had several young players playing key roles last year and Freeze said he has no doubt that many of them wore down, not only physically, but also mentally as the season went on. However, all that youth last season means 16 returning starters this year.
“Physically I look at [the young players] right now and couldn't be more pleased,” Freeze said. “It's hard to judge the mental state of exactly where they are until we get into the camp mode and get to spend more time with them like that. But there's no question that those guys, when we look back on this season, those guys will have a huge role in defining how successful we are.”
Bo Wallace’s time to shine
With several new quarterbacks beginning their SEC careers in 2014, Ole Miss' Bo Wallace returns as the league’s top passer and has a chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
Last year, Wallace struggled with consistency, but still threw for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Freeze said Wallace has matured during the offseason and that his work ethic has increased, which should prove dividends on the field.
“He's just been overshadowed by some really good players,” Freeze said. “Continue to cut down on his turnovers, make sure he's making smart plays most of the time. The guy has a chance to, you know, own every passing record in Ole Miss history before he leaves there.
“I think he's matured quite nicely in the way he leads our team, the way he goes about our business. He feels finally healthy and confident. I really think he's at a point where he certainly has every avenue right now to step in and be one of the guys in this conference.”
Wallace also has high hopes for his senior season and was disappointed when he was named third-team quarterback by the league’s media on Thursday. He said he feels snubbed and that he’ll use that as motivation going into the season.
"I didn't think I'd be first. I figured Nick Marshall would be first with the way he led them to a national championship. You can't argue against that," Wallace said. "But I didn't think I was going to be third.
"I think just the way I ended the year. If we win that game in Mississippi State the voting is going to be a lot different. The hype is going to be a lot different. So that's why that's happening. But you know it puts a chip on my shoulder."
Receiver Collins Moore suffers knee injury
Freeze said potential starting receiver Collins Moore would miss 4-6 weeks after suffering a knee injury during offseason workouts.
“We had an unfortunate injury this week with Collins Moore, who was voted our most improved player this spring at the receiving position,” Freeze said. “That is one position we think we have good players there, but we're not as deep as I would like to be. So losing him for 4-6 weeks certainly doesn't help us.”
Moore played in all 13 games last season and was a standout on special teams. He caught five passes for 67 yards and a touchdown, and also blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown in the Egg Bowl.
Freeze’s daughter keeps a ranking of SEC coaches
Freeze’s 15-year-old daughter Ragan has become a diehard football fan. So diehard that she’s started ranking coaches. But her criterion doesn’t necessarily have to do with wins and losses, but more about how the coaches treat her.
“I don't know that I will give you the whole ranking but number one in her book is [LSU] coach [Les] Miles,” Freeze said. “In Baton Rouge he spent 10 minutes with her talking. Then last year when they came to our place, she was out there without me talking to him. To her, that's her, that's her favorite.”
Freeze said his daughter doesn’t rank him, but that if she did, he’d hope she’d put him first. He said in the past few years, since he’s become the head coach at Ole Miss, her love of college football has increased to the point where it’s almost unsettling.
“She lives and dies with this football now,” Freeze said. “It's probably not as healthy as it needs to be. Hopefully as she ages a little more, she kind of gets out of that, but, man, her little heart beats a hundred miles an hour when you win, she's crushed when you lose.”
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